Desert Companion

2021 Restaurant Awards: Hidden Gems of the Year

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Photo by Christopher Smith

A fruit-loaded Swedish waffle from Saga Pastry + Sandwich

2021 Restaurant Awards "Hidden Gem" Honorees

From high-concept waffles to decadent tacos, these five casual eateries made a splash in 2021
 

Soulbelly BBQ

It lives where the circles of a hipster Venn diagram of barbecue, microbrew, and Main Street overlap, but SoulBelly BBQ manages to keep a relaxed, neighborhood feel. Amid giant smokers on the patio stacked with  brisket, ribs, sausage,  turkey, bacon, tri-tip, and  pork belly,  chef Bruce Kalman plays all of the classics — two-meat combos with beans, slaw, or mac ’n’ cheese — but he also offers some new renditions: the wedge salad, a hunk of iceberg slathered in creamy dressing and heaped with pork belly; the Disco Fries, loaded with pulled pork, cheese, and pickled vegetables. The Belly of the Soul’s sandwich of brisket, egg, and onions (both fried and pickled) is deliciously excessive, but the real standout is the burger, a thick patty of smoked brisket on a fluffy roll. SoulBelly’s bar program emphasizes variety: Beers range from old-school Lone Star to local stouts and sours; cocktails include a twist on the Sazerac and the fruity-bourbony Jiggly Juice, which comes in a Capri Sun-like pouch. Like the menu, it’s big helpings of a little something for everyone. Lissa Townsend Rodgers

1327 S. Main St., 702-483-4404, soulbellybbq.com

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Saga Pastry + Sandwich

Scandinavia and Las Vegas have as much in common as pickled herring and high-stakes poker. Nonetheless, this sleek breakfast/lunch spot on Eastern Avenue is always humming with regulars — folks who lust for  Swedish waffles,  “Danish Dogs” (Denmark’s unique contribution to the tube steak oeuvre), and the most unusual sandwiches in Vegas. The waffles come either flat or folded, stuffed with savory fillings, or dripping with berries and sour cream. One bite and you’ll see why chef/owner Gert Kvalsund proudly displays his “best waffle” accolades, and has pretty much retired the award. He also does classic pancakes, pastries, and good Lavazza coffee, but what keeps us returning are his Saga Smørbrød: open-faced sandwiches overflowing with your choice of lightly cured ham, salmon, and/or the sweetest Arctic shrimp you’ll ever taste. John Curtas

10345 S. Eastern Ave. #100, 702-260-0860, sagapastry.com

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Guerrilla Pizza Company

There are few restaurants more hidden — and fewer more deserving of the title “gem” — than Guerrilla Pizza. With humble beginnings as the bootstrapped side-hustle of Robby Cunningham, a  Detroit-style pizza  savant, it’s our best example of the crispy, cheesy, spicy rectangles you can find anywhere in Motor City. It will also turn your idea of a good pizza joint on its head: Guerrilla is nestled in the kitchen of the Hard Hat Lounge, cranking out creamy, doughy goodness topped with the signature two spicy stripes of sauce.  Alternatively, try one of Cunningham’s unique creations that playfully stretch the definitions of pizza, such as a Detroit coney dog pizza (a limited-time special), or go for the best vegan slice in town. Believe me when I say it will convert the New York-style pizza devotee into a zealous Motor City heresiarch. Mitchell Wilburn

In the Hard Hat Lounge, 1675 S. Industrial Road, guerrillapizzacompany.com

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Jamón Jamón Tapas

Filled with charming Iberian décor, Jamón Jamón boasts a menu that ambitiously spans the peninsula. Starting with small plates is a must. Ease into the savory world of tapas with pan con tomate (crusty bread slathered with fresh tomato sauce);  hearty torta española (right);  and crispy croquettes filled with creamed Amish chicken. From there, expand into charcuterie platters filled with cured meats such as chorizo and salchichón and robust cheeses such as Manchego and Mahón. For big gatherings, it’s all about the paella — wide pans filled with fragrant, saffron-infused rice, and stewed ingredients such as green onions, cauliflower, shrimp, mussels, black sea bass, pork ribs, even rabbit. The wine selection is excellent, as is the house sangria and even the zippy, alcohol-free lemonade. A retail section replete with Spanish delicacies — top-notch canned tuna, raw honeycomb — rounds out this culinary trip to Spain. Greg Thilmont

6135 W. Sahara Ave. #2-3, 702-762-2844, jamonjamontapas.com

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La Cruda by El Compa

In a well-worn Valley View Boulevard strip mall north of DI is a gem of a spot: La Cruda by El Compa. Loose translation: The Hangover by the Buddy. But rather than serving out cervezas intended on inflicting hangovers, they’re delivering dishes intended as a cure with a menu steeped in traditional hearty Mexican dishes. Probably the most storied hangover cure is menudo, an offal-laden soup popular after a night of drinking. But my preference is the birria de chivo — a seasoned, stewed goat served in a variety of manners at La Cruda. Fried quesotacos seeping with birria broth and crusted with griddled cheese are a treat, but even better is the quesadilla (right), a seemingly endless amalgam of gooey cheese and unctuous meat. Order enough of either and be rewarded with a free side of consommé. The rich, layered broth — which would be just at home at a fancy Strip venue as it is among the folding chairs at La Cruda — is practically worth the visit itself. Jim Begley

3111 S. Valley View Blvd. #101, 702-913-7918

SoulBelly BBQ courtesy of SoulBelly BBQ/Bronson Loftin; waffle, torta espanola, andpPizza: Christopher Smith; quesadilla courtesy of La Cruda

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